Season 4 and the Death of Reader Certainty
June 15, 2014
Here at Cultural Learnings, I’ve been writing Game of Thrones reviews intended to be read by both those who have and haven’t read the books, but they’re unavoidably written from the perspective as someone who has. For the most part, this hasn’t been a big problem, as I’ve never been one to be too concerned with the series deviates from the books.
I remain mostly nonplussed by changes, but they’re tougher to avoid after a fourth season that has shot the books full of holes on numerous occasions. Although the season by and large ended without an outright cliffhanger in “The Children” (which I reviewed in full here), it nonetheless has left book readers in limbo when it comes to at least one major development. It’s an important turning point for the series as an adaptation, and one that will test whether or not those book readers are willing to embrace an environment where the books are no longer a reliable indicator for the story about to unfold, and where their position as arbiters of knowledge is in question.
[Warning: I’m speaking to Book Readers here, so unless you want to risk spoilers for future seasons, stay away if you haven’t read the books.]
June 15, 2014
“You remember where the heart is?”
Each season of Game of Thrones has been an exercise in selective adaptation, but its fourth season has been a feat of adaptive engineering. Working primarily with material from the third book but leaning heavily on the fourth and fifth in certain storylines, it is the season that has emphatically taken the “book-to-season” adaptation comparison off the table.
At the same time, though, the season has been organized around key climaxes taken directly from the third book in the series. Moreso than in other seasons, you could tell the writers were having to stretch storylines to maintain the timing they had established, creating material to flesh out the scenes on The Wall to justify the Battle of Castle Black taking place in episode nine or finding things for Arya and the Hound to do so that their scenes in “The Children” wouldn’t take place until the end of the season.
By and large, I would argue the show was successful in making the season work despite the delaying tactics. This is in part because the storyline in King’s Landing, arguably the most consistently substantial, was built for this timeline, clearly marked by two major events—the Purple Wedding and the Mountain vs. the Viper—with plenty of political intrigue in between. The other reason is that even if the material at the Wall was a bit thin in ways that even last week’s epic showdown couldn’t make up for, the season as a whole maintained a sense of forward momentum. Did this momentum extend to Bran, forgotten for multiple episodes, or to Stannis and Davos’ trip to Braavos? No. But it extended to pretty much every other storyline, and makes “The Children” the most climactic finale the series has managed yet. The inconclusiveness of “The Watchers On The Wall” may have been frustrating, but it guaranteed that there was still lots to resolve even for those of us who aren’t sitting at home with checklists of what’s “supposed” to happen in the episode.
And “The Children” resolved some of it, left some of it untouched, and by and large served as one big—and mostly effective—teaser for what’s to come.
“The Watchers On The Wall”
June 8, 2014
“Blackwater” was about convergence. It was the inevitable collision between Stannis’ claim to the throne and the Lannister powers controlling it. In truth, Stannis’ side of the battle was pretty thin, sketched in without a whole lot of detail beyond Davos and his son. It was really about how Stannis’ attack changed the power dynamics at King’s Landing, whether through Cersei’s steely resolve, Tyrion’s ingenuity and intelligence, or Joffrey’s cowardice. At a stage when this was still ostensibly a show with the Stark family as its protagonist, it was an early example of the richness of stories in King’s Landing, capable of carrying an entire episode on its own.
“The Watchers On The Wall” wants to be “Blackwater.” Neil Marshall has returned as director. Mance Rayder’s not dissimilar to Stannis, in terms of development at this stage in their respective narratives, an idea more than a person. We know characters on both sides. And like that episode, “The Watchers On The Wall” is exclusively focused on the attack on The Wall, eschewing other ongoing narratives in favor of the battle at hand.
The problem with this comparison is that I don’t know why I care about The Wall. Actually, that’s a lie: I know why I care about The Wall, which is the fact that I’ve known where this story is going from the beginning, and have been anticipating it playing out. But for those who aren’t book readers, this season has often struggled to make The Wall an integral part of this narrative. The season went through a lot of effort to flesh out the characterization. There was Jon’s attack on Craster’s Keep to keep the action quotient high and to build more content into the storyline to help delay the battle until the season’s climax. There was moving Gilly to Mole’s Town so she could offer perspective on the early phases of the attack. There was sticking with Ygritte and Tormund to preface the viciousness of the Thenns. And there was Ser Alliser and Janos Slynt conspiring to keep Jon Snow from preparing for the imminent attack in the proper fashion.
The problem is that none of this built momentum. It established the various players that are central to the battle, but it didn’t make it feel important, even though this is undoubtedly an important battle. It just paled in comparison to the immediacy of Tyrion’s plight, or the looseness of Arya and the Hound, or a range of other stories that were undoubtedly more dynamic. This doesn’t feel like the culmination of a season-long storyline. It feels like something that just got delayed, a logical climax to the season (and the book most of the season is based on) that required padding to land in this position.
The result is an episode that has to prove itself without the benefit of strong connections to the characters, or season-long storylines waiting for a climax. “The Watchers On The Wall” needs to be a self-starter, building anticipation for and delivering action that the episode’s pedigree has promised. And while a visceral piece of action filmmaking and a spectacle worthy of “Blackwater,” it proves less a climax so much as long-delayed rising action to finally bring The Wall into play in the season’s narrative.
“The Mountain and the Viper”
June 1, 2014
“Traditions are important – what are we without our history?”
One of the perils of being a book reader watching Game of Thrones has been the fact that so many of the biggest moments have been “surprises” in the context of the narrative. We look to events like the Red Wedding, or the Purple Wedding, or Ned Stark’s fate on the Steps of Baelor as key events in the narrative, but we can’t necessarily share the anticipation of those events with viewers who have no idea they’re coming.
This is why “The Mountain and the Viper” is such a fun episode as a reader writing about the show. For once, the show has built in its own hype machine, setting up the trial by combat and building suspense for it over the past two episodes. The week off for Memorial Day could have negatively affected momentum, but it’s worked nicely to give them another week to set up the stakes of this conflict. As readers, we may have the benefit of knowing how the battle between Gregor Clegane and Oberyn Martell ends, but at least our anticipation for seeing how the battle plays out onscreen is something that we can share with non-readers.
Just as we can both share the slight impatience created by an episode that waits until the bitter end to get to its eponymous showdown.
May 18, 2014
“A lot can happen between now and never.”
This is typically the space where you’d find my review of tonight’s episode of Game of Thrones, but circumstances were such that A.V. Club editor Todd VanDerWerff needed someone to fill in while he was out of town. Accordingly, my review of the episode is located at The A.V. Club instead.
Before I share the link (and a brief taste of the review), though, a warning: while my reviews are typically written for both readers and non-readers alike, this one is definitely more tailored to the specific reader audience, given that Todd does the “Experts” reviews intended for those who had read at least the first three books. So if you’re been reading these reviews as an “unsullied,” be warned that there will be more attention paid to the adaptation and at how it foreshadows future events, even if the outright “spoilers” for what are in a clearly marked section at the end of the review.
Thanks to those who’ve been reading the reviews here this season, and I’ll be back in this space two weeks from now to head into the final three episodes of the season.
Game of Thrones (experts): “Mockingbird” – The A.V. Club
One of the most common complaints about a television season applies to episodes like “Mockingbird.” Whether you prefer “table setting” or “moving pieces into place” as a metaphor, it’s an episode that functions largely to set up events that are likely going to be more exciting or meaningful than the ones within the episode itself.
Such concerns are distinct, however, with Game of Thrones, at least for those of us who’ve read the books (which is most of you, one presumes). Typically, “table setting” episodes are criticized for being too blatant in their machinations, working hard to set up things but resisting pulling the trigger before the stories’ respective climaxes. Personally, I find these episodes interesting when done well, but I will admit that there is something frustrating about an episode that simultaneously feels like a comedown from the episode before and works almost too hard to build anticipation for the episode that follows.
With Game of Thrones, though, we (mostly) know the episode that follows.
“The Laws of Gods and Men”
May 11, 2014
“We prefer the stories they tell. More plain, less open to interpretation.”
This is why the Iron Bank of Braavos prefers numbers.
They’re strange, in this way: whereas the other groups who jostle for power in Westeros (and across the Narrow Sea) are interested in histories and lineages, the Iron Bank is only concerned with numbers. It’s why they’re unmoved by Stannis’ claim to the throne by blood, and why they’re won over by Davos’ claim that Stannis is the closest Westeros has to a stable ruler should Tywin Lannister meet his end.
Interpretation is at the heart of law, of course, and of the men and women who enact it. Although the majority of the episode is taken up by an actual trial, the storylines that precede it show the reverberations of other forms of justice, in which similarly cruel acts are taken for fundamentally different reasons.
The question becomes whether history will interpret them differently.
“First Of His Name”
May 4th, 2014
“I need to be more than that.”
There’s two characters that this week’s episode title refers to, even if only one is made explicit.
“First Of His Name” directly refers to Tommen, who is indeed the first King by that name to rule over Westeros. Tommen doesn’t actually do much in the hour, though, his fate a topic of conversation for those around him more than something he gets to decide on his own. Whether in Margaery’s conversation with her grandmother last week, or Margaery’s oh-so calculated performance with Cersei this week, or Cersei’s careful conversation with her father, Tommen’s future is very much a matter of procedure.
By comparison, however, Petyr Baelish makes his own procedure. There is no coronation for “Littlefinger,” as he operates in the slimy underbelly of the political underworld (yes, underworlds have underbellies). He comes from no strong lineage, with no family to support him or noble deeds to give him claim to glory, and so he has had to toil for everything he’s ever earned. He is the first of his name in a different way, in that he is the first member of his family to be Machiavellian enough to angle his way into a position of power, providing the foundation for a legacy of his own moving forward.
This balance between the self-made Littlefinger and the anointed Tommen sits on the periphery of an episode that functions as a highly logical mid-point of the season. And yet their respective paths are placed as guideposts for other characters who are faced with decisions that could lead them down one path or the other, depending on the choices they make in a moment of transition.